Letter of Recommendation New York
A Chef’s Ode to Sushi Omakase — and Shion 69 Leonard Street
Douglas Kim is the chef and owner of Michelin-starred Jeju Noodle Bar in New York’s West Village, and when he’s not busy in his own kitchen, chances are you might find him sitting next to you at some of the city’s best sushi counters — and likely photographing his meals (see above), too. (Chefs, they’re just like us.) We asked him to tell us about his love for sushi omakase, and for Shion 69 Leonard Street. Here’s what he had to say.
It’s probably because I’m a chef — and because I love sushi omakase — but people always ask me: “What’s the best omakase in New York City?”
And when they do, I go back to them with plenty of questions of my own: What kind of a sushi person are you? Do you want more traditional-style sushi? Or do you want more of a New York style — you know, the kind with caviar and other twists? Are you OK with farm-raised fish? How much are you willing to pay?
You see, we all know that taste is subjective. And there are a lot of different sushi omakase specialists out there these days. (Although that wasn’t always the case here in New York.) You need to know what you like, and what you want, first. And you also need to know that if you want good stuff, you have to pay for it.
As for me? I’m someone who likes traditional Edomae-style sushi; I don’t need the caviar or truffles. What matters to me is where the fish is from, and how it’s prepared. I want to taste that perfect balance of vinegar in the sushi rice. I want to be able to taste ingredients I couldn’t secure or prepare on my own. I want a sushi omakase experience that brings me back to feeling like I’m in Japan again.
Having sushi omakase is just so satisfying, and so pure. I don’t think many dining experiences can duplicate it. I love that it’s fine dining, but not fine dining in the traditional sense. You’re not sitting there forever — it’s not this long, drawn out meal and the food, well, you’re supposed to eat your sushi as soon as the chef places it in front of you. And it doesn’t weigh you down. It’s both simple and it’s also so complicated.
And for me, there’s no better place to experience that than the counter at Shion 69 Leonard Street.
The first time I met chef Shion Uino was when he was at Sushi Amane, before he ever worked at Shion 69 Leonard Street. This was well after I’d spent some time in Japan back in 2009 — where I had my first really mind-blowing sushi omakase experience — and I was searching for something here in New York that could match it. At first, there weren’t many places that could match what I experienced in Japan, but then over the past decade or so, I started discovering them. Places like Noz, and Noda, and Sushi Amane, where chef Shion used to work. At Sushi Amane, I thought he was using very good ingredients; I was impressed. So, when I heard that he’d moved to 69 Leonard Street, I knew I had to check him out there.
The first time I went to Shion 69 Leonard Street, the first thing I noticed was the music. At many omakase places there’s no music, so when you want to have a conversation with your friends you have to be very quiet; you don’t want to disturb anyone else. But at 69 Leonard, there’s always light jazz playing in the background, and it just feels welcoming.
Chef Shion recognized me immediately, and soon thereafter he was doing his thing, putting out all of these incredible ingredients and not really saying anything about them. I’d ask him, “Wait, is this really shiro amadai? Or rare cuts of tuna from Aomori? Is this amaebi shiokara (salt-cured sweet shrimp)? Or rare part of kue (longtooth grouper)?” It was like a whole different ballgame. There was this chilled plate with uni prepared three different ways and I could taste distinctly different flavors from each — it was almost like drinking wine, where you can taste all the different ingredients. And his signature hairy crab dish that he serves with just a little black vinegar; it’s incredible. And that’s when I knew, this place is going to be a good spot for me.
Since then, I’ve been to Shion 69 Leonard Street at least 15 times or more. I go there with my wife, my friends, and my staff, too. Sometimes a whole group of eight of us takes over the counter. I love sharing this experience with them — especially with my staff, because I want them to understand where this kind of service is coming from. When we go, we’re treated like regulars: We can dine from the hidden menu where he prepares amaebi shiokara and other small dishes that pair well with sake. He’ll let you call ahead and ask for an uni tasting.
And no matter how many times I’ve been to Shion 69 Leonard Street, I always feel like the experience is new and exciting in different ways. He remembers what I’ve eaten before. He always uses the best ingredients, and he doesn’t brag about it. He’s a purist when it comes to sushi omakase. He understands the balance of these pure ingredients, and he puts his character into it. And honestly, that’s what every chef — myself included — wants to do with their food. And I’m just happy I can experience it as a diner, too.
As told to Deanna Ting.
Douglas Kim is the chef and owner of Jeju Noodle Bar in the West Village. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.
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